The Manakin Challenge

Many people come to Costa Rica for the birds, especially now that the Northern migrants are all flying South for the Winter and end up getting funneled down this narrow isthmus of a country. Birds and birdwatchers both. So if you want to be a guide, it’s worth knowing your fowl. By appearance and by sound.

Like Summer Tanagers. Or, as they call them here, “Winter Tanagers.”

However, this can make secondhand ID’s kind of tricky. I get a lot of guests saying something like, “Oh, we saw this bird, but I don’t know what it was,” and while I can usually ID it down to species if given even a blurry phone picture, when people only hear the birds we hit some kind of language barrier.

Trying to describe animal calls is like improvisational comedy. It’s usually totally pointless, reliably goes off the rails, is far removed from whatever you’re trying to imitate, and can be unintentionally funny the harder you try for it not to be.

I’m also hopeless at imitating bird calls, so I end up resorting to creative descriptions. “Did it sound like Daffy Duck on helium whooping right outside your window at 5am?” Wood rail. “More like a Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker cackling nonstop for like 10 minutes in a tree?” Laughing falcon. “Gnome having an orgasm at night?” Nightjar.

I dare you to look it up. I also date you to tell me I’m wrong.

But there is one bird whose call I can imitate spot-on, and that is the Long-tailed Manakin, Chiroxiphia linearis. It’s Spanish name Toledo comes from it’s 4-note trill  “Tooddle-EE-doo” that’s at a pitch I can whistle accurately.

Although contrary to what the name suggests, they are really bad at sitting still.

What’s also cool about these guys is that they, like some other birds, engage in elaborate courtship rituals called lekking. But while most lek displays involve a single male singing or dancing on a perch for females, these manakins do so in pairs. They hold duets. They practice for days until they sing in perfect synchronicity, and rehearse choreographed movements like jumping up and down in turn.

Manakins are generally tiny little colorful birds that are rarely seen clearly, so this kind of behavior is just icing on the birding cake. People love these guys. They’re just too cute. One species even includes dance moves like a Michael Jackson slide in its lek, and one clicks its wings like a tap dancer.

Look that one up too. These guys are the best.

But I’ve started using an App to identify and playback bird calls. Because while the birds might be triple threats–singing, dancing, and hamming it up for the crowds–I know my limitations.


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